ARLINGTON, Virginia – President George W. Bush was helping the Air Force make a dream come true with Saturday's dedication of a hilltop monument anchored by soaring silver stalks that evoke the Thunderbirds' "bomb-burst" maneuver.
The $30 million (euro23.9 million) United States Air Force Memorial, set on a promontory next to Arlington National Cemetery and overlooking the United States' capital, was nearly 15 years in the making.
The Air Force was the only military branch without a monument around the capital. Efforts to change that were stymied by lawsuits and congressional action before the current site and design were chosen.
The list of speakers at the ceremony included Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne. The Air Force Thunderbirds planned a precision flying demonstration.
The memorial's 17,000-ton metal spires soar as high as 270 feet (82 meters), in graceful arcs that imitate vapors from jets shooting upward from the earth and peeling away from each other.
The site features two inscribed granite walls and an 8-foot (2.4-meter) bronze "honor guard" statue of four figures. A glass wall engraved with the "missing man" formation — a signature maneuver to honor those missing and fallen in the military — provides the only images of aircraft.
"Our medium is the air," said H. Ross Perot Jr., chairman of the memorial's board of trustees and a former fighter pilot in the Air Force Reserve. "Whoever comes to this memorial, you have to look up."
The memorial was the last major work of architect James Ingo Freed, who died in December. Among his other projects is the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
The Air Force memorial was first planned for a spot on the other side of Arlington National Cemetery, and Freed's design of a suspended five-pointed star won the competition in the mid-1990s. But the Marines disputed the location, saying it encroached on their cherished Iwo Jima Memorial nearby.
Lawsuits ensued and legislation was passed to prevent construction. Eventually, a new site was donated and the designing process had to start over. Freed won again with a design said to be inspired after the architect saw the Thunderbirds on television.
The design has been trumpeted for its modern appeal and its reflection of the Air Force's advanced technology.